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SEPTEMBER 2020

Joint US-Singapore Drills in the South China Sea as Regional Tensions Flare

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Joint US-Singapore Drills in the South China Sea as Regional Tensions Flare

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As tensions are once again flaring between the US and China, with multiple disputes including each country’s relations with Taiwan and protests in Hong Kong, along with the numerous unresolved regional disputes of which the competing territorial claims over the South China Sea remains prominent, the US and Singapore have just concluded a set of joint drills in the South China Sea.

On 24-25 May he Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) and the Republic of Singapore Navy Formidable-class multi-role stealth frigate RSS Steadfast (FFS 70) conducted a bilateral exercise in the South China Sea.

According to the military portal Defence Talk, the exercises were an opportunity for Gabrielle Giffords and Steadfast to enhance interoperability between the two navies, with emphasis on the importance of communications and coordination while sailing together. The drills included a publication exercise, flashing light exercise, maneuvering exercise, large and small caliber gun shoots, and a photo exercise. All events were planned with an emphasis on COVID-19 social distancing measures, resulting in a successful multi-event exercise, with no in-person planning.

The last time the two countries exercised at sea was during Exercise Pacific Griffin, U.S.-Singapore’s most complex naval exercise to date, which occurred near Guam in October 2019. During the Pacific Griffin exercise, held from September 24 to October 10 in waters off Guam, the navies of the US and Singapore staged their first ever cooperative anti-surface drill, fired a naval strike missile, and engaged in anti-submarine and anti-air warfare manoeuvres.

The U.S. and Republic of Singapore navies work together on a number of initiatives at sea such as ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise (AUMX), Exercise Pacific Griffin, Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT), and Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), as well as combined operations such as multi-national counter-piracy.

Attached to Destroyer Squadron 7, Gabrielle Giffords is on a rotational deployment to the US 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific. The US 7th Fleet conducts forward-deployed naval operations in support of U.S. national interests in the Indo-Pacific area of operations. As the U.S. Navy’s largest numbered fleet, 7th Fleet interacts with 35 other maritime nations to build partnerships that foster maritime security, promote stability, and prevent conflict.

Both the US and China are staging frequent maritime military exercises throughout the region, often involving other countries but also frequently involving direct confrontations, such as shadowing each other’s vessels and aircraft while they are on patrol or conducting manoeuvres.

On 12 May 12, Kyodo News reported that the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command is allegedly planning a simulated invasion of the Dongsha islands with Hainan island as its practice field. The mock invasion will reportedly take place in August and include a large number of marines, landing ships, hovercraft, and helicopters.

In response to the report, the Global Times cited experts as saying that the Dongsha Islands are in a ‘strategically important location’ and that the PLA has the capability of turning “any exercise into action if Taiwan secessionists insist on secession”.

The earlier reports have since been confirmed, and that one or even both of China’s aircraft carriers may take part in the military exercises. Yesterday Taiwan News stated that China is reportedly planning on deploying two aircraft carriers in waters near Taiwan as part of its war games in August to rehearse for a future assault on the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands.

On Monday of this week News.com.au reported that for the first time, both of Chinas aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, are being deployed together in Bohai Bay in the Yellow Sea to conduct combat readiness drills. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carriers are engaged in the second week of an 11-week simulated military confrontation that will later extend into the South China Sea.

The South China Morning Post subsequently cited a military source as saying that “An aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands) on its way to the exercise site to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea.”

Since the PLA announced it would hold the military exercise, the American military has stepped up warship and fighter patrols in the South China Sea. On Tuesday (26 May) the U.S. Airforce dispatched two B-1B bombers and a refueling aircraft to fly toward the South China Sea after passing over the Bashi Channel to the south of Taiwan and near Hong Kong. The two bombers and the KC-135R tanker aircraft left Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on their way to the South China Sea, according to Aircraft Spots.

There is speculation in the region that the aircraft having flown near Hong Kong might also be a signal to China over the proposed national security law which sparked a resumption of protests within Hong Kong itself.

Developments in Hong Kong are probably not a major factor of themselves however, as the US regularly conducts naval and maritime drills and manoeuvres throughout the region. On 14 May the U.S. Navy posted pictures of one of its warships sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait for the sixth time this year. The passage had taken place the previous day, when the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) steamed through the 180-kilometre-wide strait separating Taiwan and China as “part of ongoing operations in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the post on the U.S Pacific Fleet Facebook page. It was the sixth such transit of the strait by an American warship so far this year. U.S. naval vessels passed through the area a total of nine times last year, according to CNA.

While the announcement of the operation followed reports on 12 May of a Chinese military exercise scheduled for August in the South China Sea to simulate an invasion of the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands (Pratas Islands), it must have been planned and put into effect much earlier. Also, on 13 May a US littoral combat ship was operating in the southern reaches of the South China Sea. The Pacific Fleet said it was the second time in a week this type of vessel had patrolled those waters in support of “freedom of navigation and overflight.”

The US Congress added another element to the disputes and reciprocal recriminations with China today (27 May) when it voted to toughen the U.S. response to what it referred to as a brutal Chinese crackdown on ethnic minorities. The House passed a bipartisan bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass surveillance and detention of Uighurs and other ethnic groups in the western Xianjiang region. The measure already passed the Senate and needs a signature from President Donald Trump, who said this week he’ll “very strongly” consider it. The bill passed by a 413-1 vote.

At a press conference last Sunday China’s foreign minister Wang Yi told reporters: “It has come to our attention that some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War.” The resolution by the Congress will no doubt add more weight to this impression.

The United States held at least 85 joint military exercises with its allies in the Indo-Pacific region in 2019 according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, affiliated to Peking University, which completed a report on the topic late last year. While the drills – carried out between January and November – have varied in size, their aim has been consistent: to extend America’s presence in the region and strengthen the defence capabilities of its allies.

“Through these exercises, the US is enhancing its interoperability with other nations and making a stronger military presence to contain the rise of China as a maritime power,” it said, adding that America was “likely to stage more drills on core combat capability … to handle the perceived regional security threat”.

Of the joint and multinational exercises staged in the period, the Philippines was involved in at least 16, Thailand nine and Singapore six, the report said.

Although neither Singapore nor Thailand are involved in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea – the Philippines,  Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are – military cooperation between the two Southeast Asian nations and the US is deepening. The US has also invited other allies, including Japan, India and Australia, to take part in exercises in the South China Sea, in an effort to “drag more nations into the [issue]”, the report said. (LINK)

In a development that goes against the deluge of belligerent actions and accusations, according to the Philippines news agency the Inquirer President Duterte and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke over the phone on Tuesday evening where they “reiterated their commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes” in the South China Sea. The Philippines has been actively pushing for the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The Philippines and Vietnam elevated their bilateral ties to a Strategic Partnership in 2015. The two sides committed to enhance cooperation in a wide of areas — political, economic, socio-cultural, and defence and security cooperation, including in the area of maritime security.

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